Leaders reveal personal stories, need for change during LGBT Pride Month event

By Beth Reece DLA Public Affairs

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Three leaders in government and defense who are also part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community described their coming out and the need for tolerance during an LGBT Pride Month observance June 22 at the McNamara Headquarters Complex. 

Eight months after the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed, Air Force Col. Elizabeth Arledge was invited to an office dinner at her boss’ home. The boss was a three-star general, and the invitation included a guest. 

“At that moment I realized it was time for me to stand up and be the person I wanted to be,” said Arledge, chief of acquisition, requirements and programming for the Nuclear Weapons, Missiles and Munition Division at Air Force Headquarters.

Arledge invited her girlfriend, then spent the following days telling her boss and others that she was a lesbian. They all supported her.

Amanda Simpson was the director of flight operations at a major aerospace and defense company in Tucson, Arizona, when she made the final arrangements of her transition from a man to a woman. She set up a meeting with the company president only to break down in tears before getting the words out of her mouth. 

“I knew that I was putting my job on the line, that I could very easily be told to pack up my desk and leave. I knew that I could lose my livelihood, thus my family, thus my way of life,” said Simpson, who has served in four consecutive government appointments and is currently deputy assistant secretary of defense for operational energy. 

The company president was sympathetic. She listened to Simpson’s fears and offered to move her to another position in another one of the company’s worldwide locations. You can start over new, she was told. But Simpson preferred to stay close to family and friends, and continue doing a job she loved.

“She said to me, ‘Wow, transitioning in Tucson is going to be tough. That really takes balls.’ I just replied, ‘Not for long.’”

Coming out is an intense and personal experience that she endures over and over, added Sharon Wong, acting director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion for the Office of Personnel Management.

“As you continue to meet new people or come across people you haven’t seen in a while, it’s like coming out all over again. It’s not just a one-time event,” she said.

Their lives are not dominated by discrimination, Wong and Arledge said. Wong refuses to internalize other people’s biases and negativity. And Arledge is more mindful of being discriminated against because she’s a woman. Simpson, however, is acutely familiar with discrimination.

“On average, two people are murdered every month in the U.S. just because they’re transgender. Worldwide, it’s under five,” she said. 

Soon after Simpson’s transition was complete, she discovered several of her coworkers had started a petition to prevent her from using the women’s restroom. She felt betrayed and scared, but the company’s human resources department made it clear that if HR officials ever found the petition, every person whose name was on it would be immediately fired.

“That was a huge step at the time. 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' was still military policy, and the military was our customer. The company proved that it wanted to have a fully inclusive LGBT policy for employees,” she said.

The ordeal pushed Simpson to become a siren for people like herself. 

“I have a job, and I do exceptionally well. Being trans doesn’t interfere with that,” she said. “That’s what all trans people are working toward, the ability to contribute to society in a meaningful and productive way.”

Events such as the recent shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, emphasize the need for deeper understanding and tolerance, the women agreed. Arledge encourages others to be wary of habits. Using the word “spouse” to refer to a new acquaintance’s husband or wife is more inclusive, she said. And the LGBT community shouldn’t be thought of as special or different. 

“I personally believe that we all want the same thing. We want to feel safe; we want to feel secure; and we want to be loved,” she said. 

Wong added that LGBT allies should not be afraid to actively fight homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. 

“There’s some fear among people that if I show that I’m an ally or attend an event such as this, people are going to think I’m one of them,” she said, commending HQC employees for participating in the event. Every seat was taken, and some employees stood along the walls to hear the discussion.

Simpson spoke of the outrage and disgust shown by many Americans after the Orlando shooting. In less than two weeks, the event began fading from headlines, she continued. 

“We have to step forward always, not just at Pride events, not just in June. We must listen to the conversations in our workplace and say something when they’re inappropriate,” she said, eyes reddening.

“How has hate become an ok thing in this country? It’s not just about the LGBT community, but humanity. Make it your habit to speak rather than be silent when you hear something,” she said, apologizing for the emotion.